Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. His Movie

In our hype-saturated world, it's a rare thing for a movie to exceed the promise of its marketing material. Even rarer is the adaptation that manages to eclipse it's source material. This is especially true of videogame films where the compelling ruled worlds of source material are rendered through tedious exposition (rather than exploration and experimentation). Comic-books movies have faired much better. Hell, they've been doing pretty damn well for a while now, but most fans will agree that something is lost in the jump to the silver screen. Snyder's take on Watchman was faithful but uninspired, save for it's ultraviolence. Iron Man 2 was a good time but all the subplots and cameos left it feeling cluttered. Kick-Ass struck a strong balance between surreal, sometimes controversial violence, and nerdy self-deprecating humor, but its satire felt a bit sharper on the ink. 

I expected Scott Pilgrim would suffer similarly. I knew that Edgar Wright nailed the visual style from the moment I watched (and obsessively re-watched) the trailer, but I was worried about the leading man (you are forever George-Michael to me Michael Cera) and the challenge of compressing 6 graphic novels with about 20 characters into 2 hours. Wright not only captures the soul of the comic, he distills it and refines it. He gives it a 1-up, a fire-flower and a starman all at once. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is not only a brilliant comic adaptation, but a brilliant example of how to bring video games to the movies. Bryan Lee O'Malley's opus is a romance first and foremost, but it is also positively saturated with videogame references, and his take on Toronto is twisted by gamic logic. People throw fireballs, produce weapons out of thin air and take shortcuts through alternate dimensions. Ninjas, Psychic Vegans and robots abound. People erupt into showers of coins when they are defeated. Wright gets the game and he plays it well.

This poster is awesome! Why don't they use this one instead of that other dweeby one?

Spoiler alert; specific examples follow: The film opens with an 16-Bit take on the Universal screen, complete with a digitized soundtrack. Immediately thereafter, you are greeted by a familiar melody from the Legend of Zelda. Beloved, nostalgia inducing sound effects from my Super Nintendo youth punctuate conversations and character interactions. Text occasionally adorns the screen, dividing the film into chapters and visual effects illustrate sound effects and music. This super-imposition of visual sound effects and iconic imagery on normal cinematography not only enhances the light-hearted absurd humor of the movie, it leads to a sort of augmented-reality presentation that is prefect for our time: we are surrounded by reoccurring  icons and sounds in every day life. This is especially true of videogamers and cyber-jockeys and cell-phone junkies. This is the sort of stuff that makes a videogame movie.

There are a few moments where the thing starts to feel like the Wachowski Brother's Speed Racer; the screen splits apart to show closeups of several characters simultaneously, or the background fades to abstraction behind characters before they pull off 'special moves.' But unlike Speed Racer, these anime aesthetics are grounded in fresh characters and meaningful relationships.

Speaking of characters and meaningful relationships, the casting and acting are great. The entire cast glows with the sort of enthusiasm that says "I'm happy to be a part of this." Kieran Culkin steals the show as Wallace Wells (though in the comics, I always imagined he was Asian), though Aubrey Plaza's Julie Powers gives him a serious run for his money. Anna Kendrick is great as Stacy Pilgrim and I wish she had more screen time (though it honestly wouldn't fit with the story). The Sex Bob-Ombs all look and sound exactly like I would have imagined them. I still think Wright could have done better than Michael Cera for the lead (When he scowls or puts on his 'game face' it looks like he's pouting and he's still a bit too mopey and awkward), but the truth is, he also could have done much worse. There are a few moments where he's spot on. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes Ramona Flowers seem much warmer and more appealing than she was in the comic without sacrificing the character's mystique. Ellen Wong also does an admirable job with Knives Chou, and I plan to keep an eye on her in the future.

The aforementioned dweeby poster.

The plot moves absurdly fast. Not quite 'Gilmore Girls dialogue' fast, but a lot of stuff happens and it happens fast. Again, the pace is pixel perfect for generation net. I can't help but wonder how older audiences would react to the film. Parents may or may not get it. Grandma might have a seizure. The pace is essential for fitting everything in however. I also applaud the edits made to the plot. In the books, (particularly in the second half of the season and the last book in particular), there are times where it feels like Scott is just drifting and O'Malley is killing time. To be honest, the last volume of the book, (released a few weeks ago) felt like a rather sloppy ending. The movie has a much cleaner finish, and the battle of the bands subplot adds some more structure to the narrative. All in all, both the books and the movie are worthy of your time, but for the first time in a long time, I have to say that the movie is better.

Part of me wants more. These characters, and the world they inhabit are just too damn fun. But the story is finished, O'Malley is finished with it, and I worry about what might happen if we try to push this forward. In any event, you should definitely give Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World a watch at your earliest convenience. It's an absolute blast.


Mark said...

The movie includes lots of flashy graphics, awesome absurd video game rules/logic being applied to the real world. All that change Scott "earned" and he isn't a wanted man for murder.

Overall lots of fun.

Jolls said...

What a great review. I agree about the pacing, it was fast but it didn't seem too fast, as some comic movies tend to.